In circus arts we do a lot of movements with our arms raised over our heads. The importance of properly warming up the shoulders for overhead movement patterns is something I wrote about earlier this year in a blog post: 5 Shoulder Warm-up Exercises to add to your warm-up. The movement patterns described in that blog post are all wonderful movements–keep doing them! Now I want to add an additional movement to the mix.
To raise our arms over our heads we need to have good scapulohumeral rhythm. This involves the upper and lower trapezius muscles and the serratus anterior muscles to be working together to upwardly rotate your shoulder blade as you raise your arm overhead. It doesn’t matter if you are raising your arms out in front of you first and then over your head or out to the side and then over your head, you need these three muscles firing.
When they are all working properly, they create a nice upward rotation of your scapula as well as creating as much subacromial space for your biceps tendon (long head) and your subscapularis (a rotator cuff muscle), which are attached under the acromion to the head of the humerus. But when space is limited, due to poor scapulohumeral rhythm, these two muscles tend to get impinged and tendonitis can be a result.
The serratus muscle helps pull the scapula forward and around the body, but on many people, because of posture, the serratus tends to be weak and/or tight and thus not working effectively. At the same time many people’s upper trapezius tends to be overworking and the lower trapezius tends to be sleeping. That is why incorporating Wall Slides (mentioned below and in the post I linked to above), as well as the additional movement described in this post, into your warm-up can help ensure that you are getting those arms overhead with good scapulohumeral rhythm and thus keeping your shoulders healthy and happy.
I mentioned Wall Slides in the post: 5 Shoulder Warm-ups as one of the movements to add to your warm-up. Wall slides really help activate those three muscles: upper traps, lower traps and serratus anterior. (see video below) Wall slides are an excellent way to warm-up your shoulders. The purpose of this exercise is to activate the serratus to draw the shoulder blade around the body. Notice how the shoulder blade is upwardly rotating and moving towards the side of my body in the video below.
A few tips for performing a wall slide:
- Focus on feeling the serratus muscles do the work-feeling a contraction or a stretch on the outside of your body and maybe even under your shoulder blade.
- Make sure the contraction is not of your pecs (major and minor) to do this movement. (This is quite common and it will take focus to ensure that you don’t use the pecs-another over-active and tight set of muscles.) The contraction should also not be primarily from your upper traps either.
- Elbows begin at–or a smidge below–shoulder height. Do not bring the elbows below shoulder height as this will activate the wrong muscles.
- When pressing the arms up, press them up and out in a V shape.
- Ensure that you maintain external rotation of the humerus (upper arm bone) in the shoulder socket. This will rotate your your thumbs out and your palms to face up towards the ceiling and not towards one another or towards the wall they are facing.
Your New Movement
The movement to add to your warm-up, Plank to Down Dog, is to target your serratus anterior muscles a little more. We all have probably done scapular push-ups, also sometimes called protracted push-ups, and while these are an ok movement for the serratus, there are a few reasons this might not be the best choice to activate our serratus and our upward rotators.
- Scapular push-ups can become a little too Pec-dominant, especially if a person isn’t paying attention to which muscles are contracting to do the movement.
- Scapular push-ups have a tendency to put us into forward head posture.
- Our Pecs tend to be stronger/over-worked (in most people) and they will generally take the lead on this movement even though it’s not the muscle we’re trying to focus on in this movement. The pecs are synergists with serratus anterior muscles and do help with the movement, but we don’t want them to be the prime mover.
- Our serratus anterior muscles are better activated when our arms are above a 90-degree angle of humeral elevation–meaning lifted higher than shoulder-height.   
Plank to Down Dog
First let’s talk about the set up of plank:
- Hands under shoulders, feet hip-distance apart
- Pressing into the floor with both hands to ensure activation in shoulder girdle and pressing your feet into the floor to activate anterior leg muscles.
- All of your muscles are isometrically contracting (engaged), especially your core and glutes (although keep your face and upper traps relaxed).
Set up for Down Dog is important; people often perform this position incorrectly:
- Begin in plank, with hands under shoulders and feet hip-distance apart.
- When lifting back to Down Dog, keep hands and feet in the starting placement.
- To ensure neutral positioning of the pelvis, bend your knees and tip tail bone towards the ceiling. This will feel like you are arching in your low back. You are–but that is to bring your pelvis out of a posterior tilt (where many people end up performing this pose) and back to neutral position. This also ensures a lengthening of the hamstrings since this neutral pelvic position draws the ‘sitz bones’–where the hamstrings originate–further away from where they insert (on your tibia and fibula) to facilitate a “proper” stretch in the hamstrings.
- Make sure not to arch at the mid back or flair the ribs–your core should still be braced.
- Shoulders and arms should line up along the side of your head, approximately with your ears. Your humerus (upper arm) is externally rotating (to create more subacromial space) and serratus is activated to pull the shoulders around the body–this will feel like your are pressing into the floor with your hands. However, because of the external rotation there will still be ‘space’ between your shoulders and ears.
For the flow, you will move from plank to down dog on your breath:
Inhale and come into down dog, feeling all the alignments and muscles come to their positions.
Exhale forward and isometrically contract all your muscles as you come into plank.
You may need a few breaths in each position when you first begin this flow because you will need to go through a check-list of joint positions and muscles engagements, but with practice this will become more of a flow with one breath per position.
Below is a video demonstrating two plank to down dog flows with good alignment and the third is demonstrating incorrect positioning in down dog. I could have shown poor positioning in plank, but that never feels nice so I am going to hope that you have a nice strong plank position with a straight line from the crown of your head to your heels.
I want to draw your attention to how in the incorrect positioning in down dog that although my legs are straight and my heels are down (almost to the floor), I have a posteriorly-tilted pelvis. I also have flared ribs and a huge hinge happening at the back side of my shoulder joint. This hinging at my shoulder causes wear and tear in my shoulder joint: excessive pinching (impingement) on the back of the joint and excessive force and stretch to the incorrect soft tissue (ligaments & joint capsule) on the front of my shoulder joint.
It’s a subtle nuance to draw the pelvis out of a posterior tilt and externally rotate the humerus and press through the hands and activate the serratus. Aesthetically, it doesn’t look like what people ‘think down dog should look like’: straight legs, heels down, straight or even a bit of a hyperextended back and arms as far behind the head as possible. But setting yourself up with all these little nuances ensures safety to your joints, a proper stretch to your hamstrings–one of the benefits the position touts–and a great way to fire up your serratus for all the over head movements you are about to do in your circus training.
Also a quick shout out to one of my Favorites for being the videographer of this video. Thanks T
In closing, if you have any questions, please send a message or leave it in the comments. If you want some help with your form, I coach people in person and online so feel free to contact me.
Thanks for all your inspiration and questions that continually help me be a better coach and sometimes are the inspiration for these posts.